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Who's in charge of your remote?

Electronic gadgets dominate our life yet, as Sue Jones discovers, many people simply cannot get to grips with the digital age

If you are one of those grumpy old men or women who think that the young spend their time playing computer games with their mobile phones glued to their ears while their parents slump in front of the TV, you're right.

Given a choice of media activities, 95 per cent of us watch TV regularly, especially if we are elderly, have a low income or are disabled. But if pushed, 16 to 24-year-olds would marginally prefer to be deprived of the box than their mobile phone, says Ofcom, the telecommunications regulator.

More than 80 per cent of adults have mobile phones, two-thirds have digital TV and half have access to the internet at home, according to Ofcom's media literacy audit, which researched the ownership and use of digital media platforms of 3,200 adults.

And the clutter of gadgets is also increasing. Most of us have a CD player, a DVD player and VCR at home. The 16 to 24-year-olds are the most likely to have games consoles, digital cameras and MP3 players; but while the middle-aged know these things are somewhere in the house, they don't use them much.

But our stock of gadgets is more than a sub-branch of consumerism.

"Electronic communications networks play a central role in daily life," says the report. "They underpin all businesses and are central to the workings of modern democracy."

Using digital media and understanding what it can do is becoming as important as reading and writing. Ofcom defines media literacy as the "ability to access, understand and create communications in a variety of contexts". This can include such activities as being able to shop, bank and pay bills online, lock your phone and download ringtones, organise digital photos, set up your own website or weblog and use the interactive button on a digital TV.

So how good are we at getting the best from our gadgets, assessing the value of what is presented to us and protecting ourselves from unscrupulous media operators? Just under half of us with TV at home have concerns about what is shown. Offensive content worries us, especially if we are older, female or from a minority ethnic group, and a quarter of us worry that phone masts are a danger to our health.

Our greatest concern, though, is the internet. We go online to communicate and for the wealth of information available, but more than two-thirds of home users are worried about what comes in, and what might be going out.

Offensive content is highest on the list, but a quarter of home users think there is a risk to personal privacy, to our finances and to our computers.

With increasing numbers of commercial transactions being carried out on the internet, a quarter of home users are happy to enter their credit and debit card details and about a third would give their home address and phone number. Half would check the reliability of a site by looking for kitemark symbols, for example, but 13 per cent would not make any check before entering personal details. Only half are confident that they can control content through blocking viruses and unwanted or intrusive communications, or spam.

When it comes to news, which helps to formulate our political, social and economic outlook, we look to the brand rather than the medium. Traditional UK-based TV news is highly regarded with the BBC topping the trust ratings at 81 per cent. Internet news services elicit a higher proportion of "don't knows", although those who trust BBC TV are likely to trust its website. We are also less aware of foreign TV stations, with half not knowing any and 15 per cent trusting US-based Fox News. Only 8 per cent trust al-Jazeera, which broadcasts from Qatar, though this rises to a quarter for young ethnic minority groups.

By comparison, under half of us trust the old technology of newspapers, though the level of confidence is higher for "broadsheet" and regional titles and lowest for the tabloids.

The proliferation and interconnection of digital outlets was dramatically demonstrated when the tsunami hit on Boxing Day 2004, highlighted in Niace's guide to media literacy And now, press the red button. TV news relied on the public using video-cameras and mobile phones, and charitable donations were made electronically by phone and the red button.

But half of us think we don't get the best out of the technology we have. A fifth would like to learn more but don't know where to go, and the same proportion say they don't get the chance to learn at home because someone else is dominating the technology - a complaint most commonly voiced by women and parents.

Ofcom has a statutory duty to work with organisations like Niace to promote media literacy through events such as Adult Learners' Week, but only 8 per cent of adults say they would sign up for a class. Most prefer to learn at home from family and friends, from a manual or by trial and error. And after the age of 55, fewer and fewer want to learn about new technology at all. TOP TEN MOST COMMON USES OF THE INTERNET:

Email; information for work or study; information for leisure or holidays; banking, paying bills; entertainment listings; instant messaging; news; information on sports; downloading music, videos and software; shopping.

Average weekly usage in hours:

Watching TV 19.4 live

+ 2.2 time shifted

Watching videosDVDs 3.2

Listening to radio 15.2

Using the Internet 9.9

Mobile phone 20 calls + 28 texts

Mobile phone (age group 16) 28 calls + 70 texts

Average spending per month:

Cable or satellite TV pound;33

Mobile phone pound;22

Broadband internet pound;21

Dial-up internet pound;14

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